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Health Highlights: Jan. 25, 2011

Blood Thinner Plavix to Retain Patent for Extra 6 Months Food Industry Unveils Nutrition Labeling Plan Gene Promotes Spread of Cancer: Study U.S. Government Recovers $2.5 Billion in Health Fraud Cases

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Blood Thinner Plavix to Retain Patent for Extra 6 Months

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted the makers of the widely used blood thinner Plavix (clopidogrel) exclusive marketing rights for an extra six months.

According to the Associated Press the patent extension is set to end on May 17, 2012, after which cheaper generic forms of clopidogrel are allowed to appear.

The FDA allowed Bristol-Myers Squibb and partner Sanofi-Aventis the patent extension subsequent to their conducting extra research into the drug's effect on infants, the AP said. This type of extension is a kind of "reward" for participating in these pediatric studies, the new agency noted. One study looked at Plavix' effect on 900 infants born with a heart defect that left them vulnerable to clots. The study failed to show a benefit, however.


Food Industry Unveils Nutrition Labeling Plan

The U.S. food industry's new voluntary program to prominently display important nutrition information on food labels is widely seen as an attempt to influence the Food and Drug Administration's ongoing efforts to develop labeling guidelines, according to The New York Times.

Under the Nutrition Keys plan announced Monday, the front of food packages will display icons that show four basic nutrients: calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Industry executives say they developed the program after Michele Obama challenged them to help consumers make healthier food choices.

But the food industry decided to create its own nutrition labeling program after the failure of talks with the White House and the FDA. At least one expert said the labeling program falls short.

"What the food industry is proposing can make something look healthier than it really is," David A. Kessler, a former FDA commissioner, told The Times. He said the industry should wait for the federal government to establish labeling rules.

The program is a "significant first step," according to a White House statement. But the administration also said it would "look forward to future improvement" in the system and the FDA will closely monitor whether the program meets the needs of American consumers.


Gene Promotes Spread of Cancer: Study

Scientists who discovered a gene that helps promote the spread of cancer within the body say blocking the gene would keep cancer confined to the original site.

The WWP2 gene is linked to the breakdown of an inhibitor (Smad7) that normally keeps cells in check. Experiments with tissue cultures showed that cancer progresses quickly and spreads when Smad7 is not present, said the team at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. They also found that blocking WWP2 prevented the spread of cancer, BBC News reported.

The study appears in in the journal Oncogene.

"I think we're really onto something important if we can put a wall around a cancer and lock it in place," said study leader Dr. Andrew Chantry, BBC News reported. "This discovery could lead to the development of a new generation of drugs within the decade that could be used to stop the aggressive spread of most forms of the disease."

While the study does improve understanding of cancer, the research is still in the laboratory stage, noted Cancer Research UK.


U.S. Government Recovers $2.5 Billion in Health Fraud Cases

Thanks to whistle-blowers and a renewed U.S. government effort, a record-breaking $2.5 billion from health care fraud cases was recovered in the budget year that ended in September.

The amount of money won in cases under the False Claims Act was announced Monday by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It's expected that the increased efforts will save an additional $4.9 billion in fraud and abuse over the next 10 years. The money will be put back into Medicare, USA Today reported.

More than half of the money recovered last year came from drug companies, including settlements for illegal marketing of drugs. The government also said that whistle-blowers received about $300 million in 2010 for alerting officials about fraud they witnessed in the workplace.

"Our aggressive pursuit of health care fraud has resulted in the largest recovery of taxpayer dollars in the history of the Justice Department," Thomas Perrelli, associated attorney general, said in a statement to USA Today.


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